ask an art critic

Jerry Saltz on Bad Galleries, Dirty Looks, and Good Alternatives

In his new column, Jerry Saltz dispenses art advice to all comers. Got a question for Jerry? Send it to

Dear Jerry,

I saw the Dan Colen show today. Yuck. Yuck beyond all yucks. Why do you think really bad art is shown in really good galleries?

—JW Reeves

Dear JW:

Ah yes, the old bad-artist-at-a-good-gallery, good-artist-at-a-bad-gallery problem. Many in the art world think they know good dealers from bad, but things aren’t so simple. If they were, every show at Paula Cooper and Marian Goodman (both great galleries) would be good. Besides which, the ones you hate are the ones I think are good, and vice versa — and just when you think you’ve got everyone pegged, a lousy gallery surprises you with good artists. That’s what makes the art world go round. Our First Commandment is Never write anyone off.

You’re right about the lameness of the Colen show at Gagosian. People are hyperbolic about it: Gagosian never gets it right with non blue-chip artists; Gagosian never shows young artists well; Gagosian is finished. Yet at the same moment, the gallery’s uptown space holds an excellent exhibition of the overlooked mid-career artist Dike Blair. So you should think twice before tossing out a blanket nay. The New Museum had a public nervous breakdown last year; this year, it’s put up excellent quieter shows, like the Brion Gyson retrospective. Next week it’ll open “The Last Newspaper,” a potentially yummy show about the life and possible death of newspapers and maybe (sigh) magazines.

We all need to trust proven galleries and museums through good shows and bad, through good years and bad. Thomas Krens, when he was director of the Guggenheim, almost wrecked the institution, staging ill-constructed crowd-pleasers and worrying much more about expansion and brand building than about vision or the museum’s mission. Now that he’s been safely disposed of, the Guggenheim is edging its way back to credibility. I watched the late great Colin De Land go through phases of being in front of the curve then seemingly out in left field — but I never missed a show at his gallery.

Dear Jerry,

It’s irritating when people ask me “What do you do?” and I say, “I am an artist.” Then they ask, “Well, what else do you do?” or look at me as though I am unfortunate. Why is it not enough for me to be an artist?

—AdrienneRose Gionta

Dear AdrienneRose,
I know it irks you when people look at you like you’re a misfit, implying that there’s no way that being a full-time fine artist could possibly earn you a living. You know what, AdrienneRose? They’re right. Like most artists you probably are a misfit. Most people are semi-content to be loved by their mates, pets, family, or whatever. Artists want to be loved by everyone, everywhere, for the rest of time. Sheesh.

As for earning a living, I’d say about one-ten-thousandth of one percent of all artists make money from their art. When you tell people you’re an artist, of course they assume you’re not in this teeny-tiny percentile. So artists: Don’t be babies about this. More important, never, ever envy other artists who don’t have to work. Trust me on this; I am a professional. If you don’t make your peace with this in your artist’s heart, you’ll be eaten alive from within, and maybe not survive at all. Second commandment: Thou shalt not envy.

Dear Jerry,

Hello there. It is very brave of you to attempt to answer questions. I only ask them.

My Q. for U: What four or five shows can you recommend in Chelsea that offer more substantial fare than the juvenilia of Dan Colen?

Deborah Solomon

Dear Deborah:
OMG! Deborah Solomon! One of my writing heroes, a friend who’s brilliantly transforming the interview format into a form of criticism!

As it happens, there’s a batch of very good shows up right now that deserve attention and aren’t getting it — partly because dorky critics like me have written about the Colen show. It may or may not be a coincidence that many of the best shows not gaining attention happen to be by women. So, five shout-outs to some deserving shows in Chelsea.

1. At Tanya Bonakdar, Sarah Sze is consolidating her gifts, taking her work to a stellar level. She’s creating visually compelling sculptural machines that seem at once to echo the structure of mutant cancer cell-replication, devise hermeneutical models of the universe, and open up her vision so that what at first looks like endless accumulation has more air and space than ever before, thus making her work more visible, engaging, and touching greatness.

2. At Ameringer-Yohe, there’s a small eye-boggling survey of 50 years of wall-mounted wild-style paintings and constructions by the unacknowledged godmother of much recent sculptural installation, Judy Pfaff. Without Pfaff, there’s no Sze, Phoebe Washburn, Jessica Stockholder, or ten other first-tier artists.

3. At Luhring Augustine, the mistress of bliss, queen of color, sultana of video installation — the inimitable Pipilotti Rist. At her opening dinner, I asked Rist about the hanging chandelier sculpture made of white underpants in the rear gallery. I told her that New Yorkers won’t recognize the garments she’s using because no one here wears white granny panties. She looked at me incredulously, saying “Everyone in Switzerland wears these.” So I polled every American at the table, asking whether he or she was wearing white cotton underwear. Nobody said yes. Rist was shocked, and stammered, “They make me feel secure.”

4. At 303, a radically delicious Sue Williams survey titled “Al-Qaeda is the CIA.” Williams brings sex and abstraction into such close proximity that soon you don’t know if you’re looking at an anus, a polka dot, or a spot, meanwhile feeling a rise in your kundalini and your aesthetic responses.

5. At Jack Shainman, Arlene Shechet’s fiery, sensual, intently intellectualized way with clay raises this oldest of media above the limitations imposed on it by a narrow-minded art world that, upon hearing the word “clay,” cocks the hammer on its biases.

Honorable mentions: I could easily go on about the Chelsea shows of Lily van der Stokker, Casey Cook, Deborah Kass, and the ever-young 70-year-old Joan Snyder at Betty Cuningham, who’s doing what she’s done for decades, only better than ever.

A note from Jerry: I’ll be off on a side project for two weeks, but will be back with answers to your questions the week of October 11.

Jerry Saltz on Bad Galleries, Dirty Looks, and Good Alternatives